The realization that the All Star game was over seems to have gotten GMs off their couches and it’s been a big week on the baseball trade market. Last week, the Cubs pried Jose Quintana away from the White Sox and then the Nationals addressed their most glaring weakness when they procured Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from the Athletics.
On Tuesday, the Yankees went back to being buyers after taking their first offseason off in decades last year. GM Brian Cashman put White Sox GM Rick Hahn right back to work after the Quintana trade and dealt Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle to New York in exchange for outfield prospects Blake Rutherford and Tito Polo, LHP prospect Ian Clarkin and RHP Tyler Clippard.
The biggest name moving in the trade is clearly first/third baseman Frazier, last year’s Home Run Derby champ (who joins reigning champ Aaron Judge, because the Yankees need all the dingers). Frazier may not offer much in the way of baserunning or defensive acumen, and he’s still striking out a lot (21.2% K/9), but he’s hitting for enough power (.225 ISO with 16 HR) and has started walking enough (14.3% BB/9 in 2017 vs. career 8.5%) that he’s overall having a decent, if unremarkable year (103 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR). Decent and unremarkable, however, is an instant upgrade for New York.
First base has been an abyss of suck for the Yankees this year. After Greg Bird suffered an ankle injury in Spring Training and tried to play through it (unsuccessfully: .100/.250/.200 over 19 games) before hitting the DL. His replacements, mostly Chris Carter (73 wRC+ over 208 PAs) with a sprinkling of Tyler Austin, Garrett Cooper and Ji-Man Choi, have not exactly inspired much in the way of confidence, as Yankees’ first basemen are collectively hitting .183/.272/.355 (66 wRC+) with a 34.7% K/9 and sit at -1.2 fWAR, which is the 2nd worst in MLB.
New York, probably not coincidentally, learned this week that Bird will need ankle surgery and might miss the rest of the season. Even if Bird does make it back successfully this season (no small feat), the Yankees could always platoon Frazier (career 122 wRC+ vs. LHP, 106 wRC+ vs. RHP) with Headley (career 112 wRC vs. RHP, 98 v. LHP) for a boost at third. Regardless, first base has been a serious problem for the Yanks this year and even upgrading to league average there makes them a much stronger team, and that’s without the unspoken benefit of keeping Frazier away from the rival Red Sox.
While Frazier might be the biggest name moving and he certainly patches a glaring hole, he’s not the most important part of the deal. While Yankees relievers’ overall numbers on the year look pretty good, with a 3.22 FIP (3rd in MLB) and 4.8 fWAR (2nd in MLB), that belies the fact that their had been some struggling as of late. The Yankees lead the MLB with 18 blown saves and those have certainly hurt them over the last month as they’ve gone from a four-game division lead to third place and 3.5 games behind the Red Sox. Dellin Betances has been struggling with his control (7.76 BB/9) even as he leads MLB in K/9 (16.95) and Aroldis Chapman has seen his ERA ballooned to 3.42 (although his 1.82 FIP and .390 BABIP suggest it’s a fluke). The new additions, both former Yankees draft picks, will certainly give them both some much needed rest and manager Joe Girardi plenty of options.
Robertson has rebounded from a down 2016 and is having another very good season (2.70 ERA, 3.04 FIP, 0.96 WHIP, 1.24 WPA over 33.1 IP). His peripherals are excellent, as his 12.69 K/9 is is 12th in MLB for qualified relievers in MLB and his 27.3% K-BB rate is 14th. He’s also under contract for 2018 for $13 million, so he’s not just a rental. The big get, however, is Kahlne.
Kahnle is currently 4th among qualified relievers by K/9 (15.00), 15th by BB/9 (1.32) and tied for 3rd by FIP (1.46). In a lot of ways, as Jeff Sullivan pointed out right before the trade went down, Kahnle is having a pre-trade-deadline season an awful lot like Andrew Miller did last year. At almost 28 years old, Kahnle appears to be a late bloomer, but it’s worth noting that he spent his first two MLB seasons pitching in Colorado, which pretty much speaks for itself. He’s made some mechanical changes and certainly looks like one of the best relievers in the game (even as he sports a .352 BABIP) and he won’t enter arbitration until after next season and won’t be a free agent until after the 2020 season.
Of course, the Yankees didn’t get these players for nothing. While Clippard (and his 4.95 ERA, 4.97 FIP and 1.73 HR/9) was a straight salary dump to make room for Frazier and Robertson, the White Sox got one of the Yankees best prospects (in a very deep farm system) in the form of Rutherford. The Yankees’ first-round pick in 2016, Rutherford comes in at No. 30 at MLB.com’s top prospects and was 36th on Baseball America’s midseason list. He has the potential to hit for both average and power, which is why the prospect hounds are so high on him.
Clarkin is a supplemental first-round pick from 2013, a LHP with a fastball in the mid-90s and an above average slider, cutter and changeup, but who has dealt with injuries over the last few years. He’s still only 22, it’s quite possible he ends up a mid-rotation starter (TINSTAAPP duly noted). Polo is a 20-year old outfielder who is have a decent season in AA, and that’s as far as we’re going to go on that front.
Grade for White Sox: A-
Frazier wasn’t going to fetch a huge haul and his departure opens up a spot for Yoan Moncada to play everyday. Robertson’s salary was always going to be a problem in netting top-notch prospects. If you want to weigh in on the trade as a White Sox fan, you could look at Hahn’s decision to get rid of Kahnle as selling high, since his sample size as a super-reliever is very small.
With this trade, Hahn has almost cleared the roster of its most valuable veterans and younger, shorter-term controllable assets who probably won’t be around for the next contending White Sox team, given the depth of their rebuild. The White Sox added a really interesting prospect in Rutherford and further depth to the farm, which (with 8 of the top 100 on the aforementioned Baseball America list) is clearly now in the running for one of the best in MLB.
Grade for Yankees: A
This is by no means a perfectly constructed Yankees team now. There are starting rotation issues, especially with this week’s news that Michael Pineda will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season. But then, there’s also the fact that the Yankees’ offense really is this good. They own the second best run differential in the AL (+101) and they have been the unluckiest team in baseball in underperforming by 8 wins according to their expected record.
The Yankees improved at a couple of areas of need that could be upgraded for a reasonable price. They managed to hold onto their tip-top prospects (Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier) and dealt from a position of strength (with a glut of outfielders already on the roster or on the way).
They didn’t take on any long-term, oppressive contracts (thus, of course, keeping themselves in the mix for the epic 2018 free agent class).
They got back a breakout reliever in Kahnle who will be around for years and we’ve seen how important bullpens have been in the last couple of postseasons in determining the ultimate victor. With Chapman, Betances, Robertson and Kahnle available, the Yankees, once again, have arguably the best bullpen in baseball and unquestionably the best balance of depth and quality. In the hot, competitive mess that is the AL this season, they are definitely in a better position now to make the playoffs and perhaps even a deep run. Of course they are, because one year as sellers was one year too many for the Yankees.